Excerpt from Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

by Amanda Foreman

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2000, 464 pages
    Jan 2001, 480 pages

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Georgiana was only fourteen when people began to speculate on her choice of husband. Lady Spencer thought it would be a dreadful mistake if she married too young. "I hope not to part with her till 18 at the soonest," she told a friend in 1771. Her daughter's outward sophistication led many to think that she was more mature than her years. In 1772 the family embarked upon another grand tour, this time with all three children in tow. The rapturous reception which greeted Georgiana in Paris confirmed Lady Spencer's fears. According to a fellow English traveller, "Lady Georgiana Spencer has been very highly admired. She has, I believe, an exceedingly good disposition of her own, and is happy in an education which it is to be hoped will counteract any ill effect from what may too naturally turn her head."

Georgiana combined a perfect mastery of etiquette with a mischievous grace and ease which met with approval in the artificial and mannered atmosphere of the French court. Wherever Georgiana accompanied Lady Spencer people marvelled at the way in which she seemed so natural and yet also conscious of being on show. Many were daunted by the complex and highly choreographed set-pieces which passed for social discourse in French salons. "It was no ordinary science," reminisced a retired courtier, "to know how to enter with grace and assurance a salon where thirty men and women were seated in a circle round the fire, to penetrate this circle while bowing slightly to everyone, to advance straight to the mistress of the house, and to retire with honour, without clumsily disarranging one's fine clothes, lace ruffles, [and] head-dress of thirty-six curls powdered like rime. . . ."

The family travelled around France for a few months and then moved on to Spa, where Georgiana celebrated her sixteenth birthday, in the summer of 1773. They found many friends already there, including the twenty-four-year-old Duke of Devonshire. His family had always been regular visitors: it was at Spa that his father the fourth Duke had died in 1764, aged forty-four, worn out after his short but harrowing stint as Prime Minister in 1756.* The Devonshires ranked among the first families of England and commanded a special place in British history. They had been involved in politics since the reign of Henry VIII, when Sir William Cavendish oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. Sir William was the second husband of four to the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick, the richest woman in England after Elizabeth I and the most prolific builder of her age. He was the only one whom she married for love, and when she died all her accumulated wealth went to her Cavendish sons. The eldest, William, used his mother's fortune to purchase the earldom of Devonshire from James I for 10,000 pounds. His descendants followed his example and devoted their lives to increasing the family's wealth and power.

* Political life had not suited the reserved and honest Duke. But for the rivalry between Henry Fox and William Pitt, neither of whom would support a government with the other as its leader, George II would not have chosen this "amiable, straightforward man," who was noted "for common sense rather than statesmanship."

Georgiana's future husband was only sixteen when he came into an income that was twice Lord Spencer's; by one account it amounted to more than 60,000 pounds a year. His property included not only the magnificent Chatsworth in Derbyshire and Devonshire House in London, but five other estates of comparable grandeur: Lismore Castle in Ireland, Hardwick House and Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, and Chiswick House and Burlington House in London. He was one of the most sought-after bachelors in London—although Mrs. Delany was mystified as to the reason why. "The Duke's intimate friends say he has sense, and does not want merit," she wrote. But in her opinion he was boring and gauche: "To be sure the jewell has not been well polished: had he fallen under the tuition of the late Lord Chesterfield he might have possessed les graces, but at present only that of his dukedom belongs to him." As one newspaper delicately put it, "His Grace is an amiable and respectable character, but dancing is not his forte."

Excerpted from Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman . Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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